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Taking the Kids

Driving Forces Behind a Peaceful Car Trip

November 17, 1996|EILEEN OGINTZ

The next time the kids are alternately bickering and complaining that they're bored in the car, toss a box of colored Band-Aids into the backseat.

"That always works," promises Jan McCawley, who travel tested this remedy driving her six young children from Michigan to the East Coast. "The Band-Aids keep them busy and at least they won't make a sticky mess," McCawley promised.

Wherever I go, parents beg for ways to keep the peace on the highway and along country and suburban roads.

Unfortunately, the strategies vary not only with children's ages, but with their moods. One thing remains constant: Whether it's around town, an hour ride to grandma's or a six-hour drive, the reality is that most kids--no matter what their ages--simply don't like being cooped up in car seats and seat belts for too long.

"It's an unnatural situation to ask kids to sit still, and babies simply are not going to sleep all the time," said Joanne Oppenheim, a child-development expert and co-author, with her daughter Stephanie, of the recently released 1997 guide to more than 1,000 kid-tested "Best Toys, Books & Videos for Kids," (Prima Publishing, $13).

The book offers travel toy recommendations for every age group. For example, because babies' attention spans are so short, they need a variety of toys, from books to keys to mirrors, to keep them amused. Some parents suggest that something as simple as taping pictures of babies next to the safety seat will keep a child smiling for a while.

Older preschoolers and grade schoolers might enjoy the new magnetic boards and colorful, flexible magnet pieces from Wonderboard. They allow children to mix and match pieces to create interesting designs and pictures. Another set from Magneforms provides dozens of different shapes, including triangles, circles, squares and rectangles to build designs.

Even the reluctant artists in the family might enjoy the new glow in the crayons or markers that change colors. Keep a supply, plus a pad of paper and stickers, within easy reach. A variety of companies make them, but Crayola has several easy-to-carry travel kits, including a new Mini Stamp 'N' Go activity kit with stamp markers. It costs $7.99.

Hand puppets are good at stimulating fantasy play. A supply of colorful and inexpensive thread for making friendship bracelets makes good activities for small spaces. Keep a plastic box stocked with thread in the car.

My favorite solution for short and long rides: chapter books on tape. They can be rented at the library or purchased at a video store or bookstore. Your children's teachers will gladly offer recommendations. Hearing "Kidnapped" or "Little Princess" may inspire a child to go back and read the book or another by the same author. The kids sometimes become so engrossed in the story they want to keep driving. And parents enjoy the stories too.

Look for the kids' favorite authors, such as Gary Paulsen or Judy Blume, as well as some of your childhood favorites. Here's an ideal opportunity to introduce them to something you enjoyed as a child. Oppenheim highly recommends "The People Who Could Fly," in which James Earl Jones and Virginia Hamilton narrate a dozen of the best black folk tales from her collection. (The 75-minute tape and book are $15 from Knopf.)

Another solution is to sing. If your family needs help getting started, Vicki Lansky is among those who offer a tape of familiar travel tunes. Called "Sing Along Travel Songs," it includes "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain," "On Top of Old Smoky" and "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." (The 30-minute tape with printed words to the songs is $9.95 and is available from Book Peddlers, [800] 255- 3379.)

Two other song tapes that Oppenheim recommends: an all-star country collection called "Big Country," with songs by Randy Travis and Crystal Gayle, $10.95; and "A Child's Celebration of Showtunes," with songs from "Oliver," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The King and I," $9.95. (Call Music for Little People, [800] 727-2233 to order.)

If there are budding rock stars in the car, suggest they make a tape of their favorite sing-along songs with their own lyrics. The only drawback: They may not want you to play any other tunes.

Hand-held electronic games are bound to satisfy the older troops, for a while anyway. I like "Lights Out," named best puzzle of '96 by Games Magazine. The object is to turn out all of the lights of the electronic puzzle, but the possibilities are endless. The game includes more than 1,000 different puzzles of various levels of difficulty (from Tiger Electronics, it retails for $19.99).

We don't always need electronic bells and whistles. The phenomenal success of Brain Quest cards has proven that. The colorful card decks full of queries are designed for specific age groups from preschool on up. Consider the newest After School Sports Brain Quest and After School Weird Stuff, both for grades 4 through 6 and each containing 800 questions and answers (Workman Publishing, $10.95).

Try this one from the Weird Stuff collection: What do camels store in their humps? Answer: fat; water is distributed throughout their bodies.

I'm planning to toss Sports Quest to my favorite fan on our next long trip. Do you know who was the first pitcher ever to win 100 games in both major leagues? Cy Young.

There's one more way to chase the backseat blues: Start a conversation with the kids. Just ask Joann Oppenheim.

"The car was the one place in the world where we did a lot of talking," she said. "They got my attention, but I got theirs too. It was found time."

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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